Waking up to joy
It was the (un)godly hour of four AM when the wake-up bell rang, as it did every day of my twenty-day silent meditation retreat. This was day twelve of twenty and I’d finally discovered a rhythm I liked. I’d wake up and meditate in my room, and go to the other option, a Pagoda with individual meditation cells, after breakfast.
The twenty-day meditation experience was nothing like what you’re probably imagining right now- calm, serene, and quiet. In fact, it was exactly the opposite- turbulent, emotional, and bordering on insanity! Even before I’d entered the boundaries of the meditation centre, the deepest, darkest, ugliest of thoughts had started surfacing: a toxic sludge of fear, sadness, attachment, jealousy, and hatred. I’m normally perceived as joyful and loving, and this dark side does surface when I’m strongly triggered. But the sheer extent of it surprised even me! Maybe it shouldn’t have- after all, this type of meditation I practice, called Vipassana, is supposed to cleanse and purify the mind by bringing up deeply buried negativity and allowing it to pass through, freeing one from it forever. The monsoon rains poured down incessantly and so did my tears. Every cell in my body released a downpour of suffering, until I was physically and mentally drained.
Every evening we heard recordings of discourses by our teacher in his sonorous voice, and my tumultuous mind could barely grasp a word. But on day eleven a few sentences managed to find their way into my consciousness. He was explaining how nothing, absolutely nothing, outside of us, can be a source of our sadness or happiness. The reasons lay a 100%, without exception, inside our own minds. This piece of wisdom wasn’t particularly new to me, but that evening it’s deeper truth sunk in. I realised that all the accumulated aversion and hatred in my own mind was fully responsible for any suffering I experienced. After witnessing the extent of my mental debris, any doubts I had about the truth of this statement disappeared.
Consequently, as the wake-up bell rang on day-twelve morning, I rose with enthusiasm and a glimmer of hope. Realising that clearing this “muck” from my mind could be so beneficial gave me renewed determination for my practice. But moments later, as I sat down on the cushion in my room, a shrill, electronic sound broke the silence. I recognised the source without a doubt- it was a cheap, plastic alarm clock, which I knew belonged to my neighbour, a Buddhist nun, who couldn’t afford anything more sophisticated. The piercing sound continued and I waited patiently for her to turn it off. But that didn’t happen. After a few moments a toxic rant began in my mind. “How utterly unmindful of this stupid nun! She’s dedicated her life to meditation and she can’t even remember to turn of her f***ing alarm clock! How inconsiderate and annoying. Now my morning meditation, which is the strongest, is ruined.…”.
Eventually the rant in my mind became louder and much more annoying than the alarm clock, until all of a sudden I woke up to the wisdom that had penetrated my cloudy mind the night before. Hadn’t my teacher said that nothing outside myself can make me happy or unhappy? In this moment, was it the alarm clock that was breaking my peace, or my reaction to it? Did I have a choice?
With a sense of delight, I stood up, wrapped myself in my shawl, and walked outside into the darkness of the wee hours of the morning. The trees were dripping water accumulated from the rains the night before, the moonlight was glistening through the leaves, and I could hear the haunting call of an owl. I entered the meditation cell of the Pagoda and sat down, momentarily experiencing the blissful serenity most people associate with meditation. At the end of an hour, the recording of my teacher chanting a compassion recitation started playing, and its vibrations filled my body, like a soothing balm that enveloped me. I realised I’d been missing the chanting every morning by sitting in my room and made up my mind to come to the pagoda from now onwards.
That morning I woke up to a wellspring of joy that emanated from deep within me and had absolutely nothing to do with the circumstances of my life. My heart welled with gratitude for the “inconsiderate nun and her f***ing alarm clock” and the irony and humour of the situation made my body rock with a quiet laugh, in an attempt not to shock my neighbours with my usual loud cackle.
Since then I’ve remembered that I have a choice in each moment; to react with either negativity or gratitude to whatever happens in my life. And I’ve recognised that my reaction profoundly influences the outcomes I experience. This insight has led me to develop a simple yet transformational daily practice that shifts the thinking habit and brings ease and clarity into life. I’m developing a recording to guide you through this exercise, and if you’re interested in receiving free access to it, please sign up here. I’d be delighted if it could support you to bring about the same shifts I’ve experienced.